Saturday, February 6, 2016

Absent A Motherboard

I did what I’ve done a million times when my battery ran low:  I unwound my charge cables for my laptop and plugged one end into the wall and the other into my computer.  The light on the box in the exact center of the cord, halfway between wall and computer, flickered, dimmed, brightened and then went out.  That box, I later discovered, is called a “brick.”  And what the flickering light indicated was that the brick was going bad like a short in a light bulb.  Flash, bang, and a power surge.  The result?  My computer recognized that something was plugged into the power port, but no power was reaching the battery.  The brick was dead.

I hopped on the internet and found a cheap charger to fit my finicky laptop and figured that was that.  The thing arrived a few days later and when I plugged it into my computer, it again registered that something was occupying the power port, but the charge level on the battery continued to fall.  When the battery was depleted, my laptop shut down.

The repair shop told me that the problem would be in one of three areas:  the power port itself, something on the motherboard, or, God help us, the entire motherboard.  If it were either of the first two, the cost would be reasonable.  If the motherboard had to be replaced, I would need to assess whether or not the cost was worth it.  In short, I could just thank my computer for four years of service and move on, like the end of a workplace relationship that was decidedly DOA.  Meanwhile, I had my work computer, my Kindle, my cell phone, and my wife’s computers to try to keep working and meeting deadlines.

One of those deadlines involved my research into sex, gender and Christian ethics.  For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Aquinas, Augustine, Pope John Paul II, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and a host of other academics and theologians on the new frontier of gender studies and Catholic social teaching.  I had notes to transcribe, papers to write, and documents to search.  Absent a decent motherboard, I was in trouble and rapidly falling further and further behind on my schedule.

I do not like change.  Having to get used to a new computer and get all my equipment to work together seemed daunting with so many deadlines looming.  Why can’t things stay the same, I moaned.  I went back to my tired, old refrain.  With a typewriter, you roll in the paper and off you go.  A typewriter never crashes.  A legal pad and a fountain pen do not get viruses and stop working.  My notebooks and journals do not need a motherboard.

I did not catch the irony that here I was researching people who change their sex and their entire lives while I simultaneously hate change and wish things always stayed the same.  But change is good, especially when what has been is no longer working, when we find that our lives are no longer what we want them to be.  Dare to dream; dare to change.

And it was on that note that I remembered an incident from the past with my neighbor Samuel who became a woman.  It started more than five years ago.  He would walk his dog around our block and often, we would shoot the breeze and gossip about other neighbors.  My wife and I had just returned from the supermarket one day when Samuel and his dog walked by.  We exchanged greetings and we apologized for the inconvenience some workers caused him when they came to fix our natural gas line earlier in the week.  After he had gone into his house, I turned to my wife.  “Was he wearing eye liner?” I asked her.  Samuel worked in the entertainment industry and we were used to his often eccentric dress:  a jaunty beret, clacking clogs, maybe an earring or two.  His blond hair was long and he usually kept it in a ponytail.  What was different that day, though, were the dark pencil lines around his eyes and maybe, just maybe, a hint of mascara.  My wife noticed it, too.

Over the weeks and months that followed, Samuel’s face changed quite noticeably.  Now his cheeks were rouged; was that a hint of lipstick we observed on his full lips?  “Samuel’s wearing nail polish,” my wife announced when she came home from work and saw him walking his dog.  “Maybe it’s for a film he’s going to be in,” she surmised.  When I saw him later that week, the makeup was readily apparent, and now, he had decidedly feminine ways of expressing himself, a flutter of his hand, the way he clutched his purse which he carried instead of his previous messenger bag.

I was uncomfortable with him now, not because of the change, but because I did not know what I should do.  Should I ask him why he is wearing makeup or just ignore it and pretend not to notice?  If he was, in fact, changing from man to woman, would I be insulting him by not noticing, or would it be appropriate to just treat him like the friendly neighbor he had always been and continued to be?  I thought it best to just keep on keeping on until he brought it up.

And then one day, there he was in a short miniskirt and Uggs, walking his dog while talking seductively on his cell phone, and gesturing in a coy and decidedly feminine manner.  He had fashioned his blond hair in a cute bob and accented his clothing with a rich shade of red nail polish and blue eye shadow that highlighted his cornflower blue eyes.  Bangles, shiny and tingly, decorated his wrist.  We came face to face, and I realized, for a split second, I was staring at his newly developed cleavage.  I was not leering at his breasts, I swear it.  The thought screamed in my head:  “Those look so real!  He doesn’t even look like a man anymore.”  We nodded in acknowledgement of each other and he continued down the street in deep conversation with whoever was on the other end of the phone.

Now I had a problem.  As a woman, I was sure her name would not be Samuel.  How was I to greet her?  It felt insulting to call her by his old male name, yet I also felt uncomfortable saying that since she was now so obviously a she, I needed to know her new name.  I decided to try to avoid names altogether.  When I saw her on the street, I’d say, “Hey, how’s it going?”  Or, “What’s new?”  The last one made my flush with embarrassment and I made mental note not to ask it again.  Obviously, there was a lot that was new.  I was awkward and confused.  I wanted to support Samuel in her new life, but the dilemma over how much to recognize that life was the sticking point.  I did not want her to feel I was uncomfortable with the change, yet no matter how I might approach the subject, it was clear I was uncomfortable.  My confusion about what to do could easily be mistaken for judgment or discrimination, and I most certainly did not want her to feel that from me.  To add to the confusion, Samuel lived in the neighborhood with her wife, and after this obvious change, she continued to live with her wife.  Did she now identify as a lesbian?  How could she be the man in the relationship when she now was so obviously female?

The entire episode really balanced on identifiers.  Categories.  Male, female, gay, straight, all the buzzwords and acronyms and politically correct language.  This is who we are, but many times, an indefinite or gender-neutral pronoun might be the most definite thing we can call ourselves.  Categories, in this new age, must be fluid.  Categories, like stereotypes, are only somewhat true.  We are, both singularly and collectively, so much more.

As for this week and my computer issues, the phone call came while I was in the dentist’s office.  My computer was fixed.  The motherboard only needed one of its components replaced.  “The motherboard is the brains of the machine,” the repairman told me.  “A damaged motherboard takes the whole thing down.”

Motherboard,” I said to myself as I was driving to the shop.  “Why not fatherboard?  The brains of the whole machine is the motherboard.”  In the family life of a computer, the authority rested in the maternal, the motherboard.  Without the mother, nothing else would work.  In the end, a power surge from the faulty charger fried part of the motherboard.

As for Samuel, I remembered back to a happy accident that relieved me of my awkwardness.  I was unloading groceries from my car when I saw my changed neighbor approaching.  I summoned the courage and prepared to ask her straightaway what I should call her now that she was a she.

“Hi, Samantha,” someone called out from the house across the street.  The former Samuel turned and waved with a flip of her blond bob.  As she passed me, I reached down to pet her dog.

“So what’s new?” I asked Samantha, forgetting not to ask that question.

“Not much,” she said.  “What’s new with you?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why We Write About Ourselves

Writing a memoir is hard work.  It is also dangerous, as people who look bad in the book might just track you down to reassert their version of how things unfolded.  Families have blown apart; friendships have disintegrated; more importantly, people have been sued.  Writers don’t make enough to be fighting court battles with those who object to their characterization in a memoir of childhood where the author seeks revenge against those who bullied and tormented.  Writing memoir is hard work because the truth really is stranger than fiction, and a memoir uses fictional techniques to convey memories and reflections, and yes, the history of us.  How do we convey a narrative when things do not always end neat and tidy?  And, whose version of the truth is, well, true?  Could there be multiple versions of truth, like the infamous Rashomon, the epic film of Akira Kurosawa?

Meredith Maran, in her recent book, Why We Write About Ourselves:  Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (Plume, 2016), tries to get to the bottom of why prominent writers run naked through our reading dreams, parading every flaw and personality quirk, every mistake and blemish, all for the good of the art.  For the most part, Maran stays out of the way and presents these writers in their own words.  Each chapter follows a similar format, a survey of questions regarding the choices and purposes of writing memoir from those who have successfully practiced the craft.  Along the way, though, there are few surprises and a definite need for more depth.  Some of the writers rise to the occasion while others really offer little in the way of insight, especially in comparison to other forums where the writing process is explored, like the Paris Review interviews.

Some prominent themes did emerge over the course of the book.  Many of the writers cautioned against telling everything.  In the first draft, go for it and throw everything against the proverbial wall to see what sticks, but in the editing, it is okay to leave things out.  I could not help thinking of Joan Didion’s work where she quotes from her psychiatric report or utilizes her migraine headaches, or matter-of-factly announces her pending divorce as a catalyst for a personal essay.  She could never be accused of leaving something out and the result is ground-breaking and mesmerizing, inspiring a generation of personal writers using themselves as a laboratory for analysis of the human condition.  It is a memoirist’s job to go there, and keep going there, twisting a knife in the self-inflicted wound until its depth and breadth can be fully determined.  Only then can sense be made of this random road we travel.  We write to discover what events mean and why things happened the way they did, but the truth is illusive and in some cases, not the truth.  This is one of the many conundrums of the memoirist.

Another theme that emerges is that memory is porous at best.  The idea of truth in memory is subjective.  Truth in life might also be subjective, but that is the nature of the beast.  The memoir is the writer’s chance to tell her story, the world according to her point of view.  No one should apologize for memory.  What is to be avoided is revenge, according to several authors in this book.  A memoir is not the place to hold a grudge or get back at someone.  It is also not a catharsis or a place to vent.  That, these writers suggest, is the role of a diary or journal.  A memoirist does not grind an ax or seek retribution for past wrongs.

Several of these writers also cite their favorite memoirists.  Names that pop up frequently are Anais Nin, the aforementioned Joan Didion, even St. Augustine.  It is interesting that no one mentions Montaigne who might be considered the patron saint of memoir or at the very least, a writer who took navel-gazing to a high art.  Many of the writers are harder on themselves than other characters in their story.  Often, they expose themselves as adulterers, drug addicts, and screw-ups in the service of their art and that works in the realm of a memoir.  Pat Conroy’s family picketed his book signings and told customers to save their money.  His sister no longer speaks to him.  Edwidge Danticat tells us that digging up the dirt of our lives is painful but necessary, and she cites Maya Angelou as a major influence.  Meghan Daum always changes names to protect people’s privacy, but finds this practice at odds with her journalism training.  A.M. Homes carries the label of a “social arsonist.”  In the end, writers rip off the scab and bare their wounds to the world, and that is the only way memoir works.

Writing a memoir means finding what Emerson calls “the common heart,” as Sue Monk Kidd states in her chapter.  We are all part of life’s rich cloth, a piece of a larger soul encompassing all of this existence.  There is truth and there is life truth.  The facts don’t always teach us something; often it is the slanted truth that rings true.  This is the enigma of a memoir written well.  It is a paradox that the most personal stories are often the most resonant with readers.  The art of the memoir has existed since human beings first dipped a sharp object in ink (at one point a mix of blood and earth, sometimes their own, sometimes the beasts they hunted), and began scratching crude symbols to stand for what they feared, what they experienced, what they dreamed.  We are our own specimens in the laboratory of a magical world.  And the story is king.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Something Terrible Happened Here

“We don’t know how to make it stop.” 
Ghost electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) of an “overwhelmed” and “out-of-breath” soldier allegedly recorded at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Montana.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *
There is a theory, one not supported by science, that in places where extreme trauma and tragedy have occurred there remains an imprint, an echo burned into the rocks and trees and landmarks.  This echo might be voices or spheres of light or gauzy figures that can be captured with digital cameras and sound recordings.  Those in the field of parapsychology call this electronic voice phenomenon or EVP.  This idea seems to support the assertion in the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams (Universal Pictures, 1989) that “if you build it, they will come.”  If you journey to the site of horrific death and destruction and turn on your digital recorder, you will capture these echoes.  If only that were true.  What a boon that would be for historians; they could walk through a place like Auschwitz, ask questions of the ether, and get answers from the ghosts.

I believe in the exact opposite of this theory of rocks and trees as recording devices.  I think the imprint of tragedy does not reside in the physical space but in the human heart, the human soul.  It is upon us that the sorrow and tragedy are tattooed.  If we are all part of a greater soul of all life, those who have died in these places in bloody and horrific conditions, when their individual pieces of that life-soul rejoin the whole, we all feel the ripples out into the universe like tossing the proverbial pebble into the pond.  We sense the fear and terror in the place.  As we say, “the hair on the back of my neck went up,” or “I felt a presence, a chill.”

In the end, science does not support this theory either, but I have experienced it both on occasions where I knew a tragedy had taken place and in locations where I had no idea what happened.  In short, this is anecdotal evidence, but it makes more sense to me than rocks as a recording device.  It is spiritual, not physical.

When touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia, I felt terror and disquiet.  The cool wind blew the grasses around me, and whispers seemed to come out of the sky.  But I knew I was on a battlefield, and that could have influenced me subconsciously.  I was acutely aware I walked on holy ground.  The same thing occurred at Ground Zero in New York.  In all of the hundreds of people moving through that place like liquid humanity, I felt the sanctity, the solitude of death.  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London haunts me still, how I walked through the expansive vaulted heavens on earth and came to stand, without realizing it, in front of John Donne’s statue depicting him in his funeral shroud.

I once took a self-guided tour of Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana north of Los Angeles.  When paying the admission, one is given a pamphlet to follow through each significant location on the mission grounds.  I had cameras to carry, and I had also been to the mission many times, so I figured I did not need the pamphlet.  As I made my way around the complex, I stepped into a room where I instantly felt afraid as well as chilled.  Terror and sadness were palpable.  I was so disturbed that I pulled out the crumpled pamphlet from my camera bag to see exactly what this room was used for and I discovered it was the mission infirmary.  A little more research at home that night made my skin crawl.  The infirmary was also, allegedly, where Native American mission workers, some say slaves, were imprisoned and punished for disobedience and resistance.  What I got from the room was cold, pure, evil before I even knew where I stood.

Another time, while hunting quail with my father and uncle, we had another of these inexplicable episodes.  We were driving into a canyon in late afternoon.  As we passed an entry gate into the national forest, an owl sat on a fence post in the still-warm autumn sunlight next to the dirt road.  We all got out of the truck to look at it, and the owl stared back at us like the guardian-gargoyle of the underworld.  He did not fly away.  We got back in the truck and continued on into the canyon.  From a low rise we hiked down into a ravine.  My father decided to take a higher road along the ridgeline while my uncle and I scoured the bottom of the ravine on the lookout for the distinctive birds.  As we hiked, I was drawn up to my father’s position as he made his way along the visible road above us.  I saw some kind of animal loping along behind him.  When I brought my binoculars up to look, the animal was gone.  My father seemed oblivious that he was being followed.  Walking on, we found ourselves stepping through brush into a clearing where the ground was littered with bones.  We crunched through them.  They were thick in the grass—vertebrae, femurs, joints, some with bits of tissue still clinging to the bleached whiteness.  “Sheep,” my uncle muttered.  “Someone must have butchered an entire flock here.”  There were large, circular burn areas that could only be one thing:  bon fires.  What kind of dark ritual played itself out here?

Almost simultaneously, I felt extreme cold and intense fear.  I wanted to get the hell out of there, and I said as much to my uncle who agreed.  We met up with my father at the end of the ravine and told him what we saw, including the strange animal who appeared to be tracking him.  “Was it a mountain lion?” he asked.  I did not know. It could have been.  “Was it a coyote?”  I told him I didn’t know; the way the animal loped along in the brief moment I saw him with a naked eye would indicate some kind of cat, but I truly did not know what I saw.

We left without bagging a quail.  Several weeks later, my uncle went back alone with his dog to investigate the place more thoroughly.  No owls guarded the gate this time, but when they hiked down into the canyon, he encountered several rattlesnakes, and he had to restrain his dog who kept trying to run back to the truck.  Evidently, he sensed something malevolent.  For the entire brief hike, the dog, secured on a leash, stayed close to my uncle’s legs, nearly tripping him.  This hunt, like ours before, was terminated early.

Today, an entire tract home community of several hundred families lives on the site.  That might be an interesting story in and of itself.

Once I read The Revenant and Three Day Road for the review I wrote, I was drawn into other Native American stories.  A while back, I purchased several books on George Armstrong Custer’s brutal and bloody battle at Little Bighorn with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  I knew the basic outline of history, but I have never been to Montana to see the site, nor did I know the full particulars, such as the fact that the Seventh Calvary was not completely wiped out; many of the soldiers under the command of Marcus Reno and Fredrick Benteen survived.  Indeed, it was the group under Custer only that the Indians completely obliterated.

The first book I read was Nathanial Philbrick’s The Last Stand:  Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Penguin Books, 2011).  Philbrick has done previous work in historical narrative—books about the Mayflower, Bunker Hill, and the tragedy of the whale ship Essex—and he tells a competent version of that bloody day in the summer of 1876.  He includes color photographs of the battlefield as well as old tintypes and black-and-whites of the major characters involved.  He includes Appendices and Notes sections that demonstrate his broad research.  However, I found Philbrick’s telling a little light.

In research and scope, Philbrick is outdone by James Donovan in A Terrible Glory:  Custer and the Little Bighorn, the Last Great Battle of the American West (Back Bay Books, 2009).  Like the book’s title, this tome is extremely detailed and expansive, as well as intensely researched.  Donovan has written a book on the Alamo as well as a picture book about Custer and his final battle.  In comparison to Philbrick, a noted popular historian, Donovan does not have equal credentials.  However, he does a thorough and complete job of giving the reader the full scope and sequence of that day as well as what led to the battle, and how the outcome influenced history and American military science.  At times, Donovan includes almost too much research. Although maps were provided at several points throughout the text, the minute directions and movements of both the individuals and troops borders on the pedantic.  I enjoyed the details, but the book could have benefitted from a little more stringent editing, a bit more of a narrative focus over factual recounting.

One area that had me spooked in Donovan’s account concerned the metaphysical.  “Over the years, visitors and employees have reported supernatural occurrences at the battlefield,” he writes, “from ghostly visits by Indian warriors and cavalry troopers to unexplained voices, cold spots, and other spectral phenomena.  Some have postulated that the dead rise up occasionally to fight the battle over and over.  The area’s Crow Indians, watching park rangers lock the gates at night, gave them the name ‘ghost herders.’”  It is the kind of detail that although not scientific, still resonates with a sharp stab of frigid fear.

The final book, and most successful of the three is Son of the Morning Star:  Custer and The Little Bighorn (North Point Press, 1997) by Evan S. Connell.  Since Connell is a novelist, his is a narrative account focusing on characters and sensory details, and therefore, resonates with those echoes down through the years.  He covers the same material from many of the same sources as Philbrick and Donovan, but he also includes personal, more subjective stories that the historians ignore.  He gives us texture and insight, not just a retelling of the facts and locations.  Often, his writing is so sharp as to physically propel the reader through the text like novels structured with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.  I did feel that reading the books in this order made Connell’s work the most powerful.  When I opened the cover of Son of the Morning Star, I was ready for more of the experience of the battle and times and had enough of the facts to be able to validate Connell’s assertions and characterizations.

Without a doubt, America is a haunted country, as much as old London and sepia-toned Paris.  In fact, the entire 19th century seems filled with ghosts to me.  I study the early photographs.  The eyes pull me in.  They are often shifted away from the camera lens at some point over the photographer’s head as if lost in the distance of time.  In the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne, we can feel the development of the American mind.  The Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the end of slavery, the exploration of the American west, all combined together to set up the 20th century in America.  It was a strange, bloody, and exciting time, as the ghosts will tell us if we just listen.